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Women's Studies Matures As an Academic Discipline

By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 1993



BOSTON

SINCE the first women's studies program began at San Diego State University 23 years ago, critics have disparaged the discipline with terms ranging from unintellectual, touchy-feely stuff to propaganda and oppression studies.

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Not only did they trivialize it, but "many people thought it was a fad," says Caryn McTighe Musil, a senior research associate for the Association of American Colleges in Washington.

But instead of fading into obscurity, women's studies continues to crop up on campus after campus, and scholars in the field say it has affected many other disciplines.

"Women's studies has had an indelible impact on the curriculum ... especially in the humanities and social sciences," says Sally Kitch, director of the Center for Women's Studies at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. "The research and scholarship of women's studies have penetrated in those fields so that it's impossible not to think about gender issues."

For example, says Linda Wilson, president of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., the machines of the Industrial Revolution were invented to take advantage of cheap female and child labor. But material written about the period usually focuses on working men. "If you begin to look at women's role in it, it transforms one's understanding of the whole Industrial Revolution, and that's happened in area after area," Ms. Wilson says.

These pedagogical changes are occurring partly because women's studies have seeped into mainstream course offerings. Over the past five to 10 years, more institutions has included such courses in their general-education requirements, says Wendy Kolmar, director of women's studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "You're reaching a more diverse body of students than when it's purely an elective," she says.

Today two-thirds of universities, one-half of four-year colleges, and one-quarter of two-year colleges offer women's-studies courses. There are 621 programs - an increase of 20 percent from the last count in 1988.

Some of the strongest programs are found at big state universities. Many of the Ivy League and private women's colleges established programs much later, Ms. Kolmar says. "I think that a lot of the women's colleges had kind of a sense that they didn't need to do women's studies because they already in some ways lived it," she says. "A lot of the state universities were much more conscious of needing to do things for their women students."

A women's-studies program typically consists of an interdisciplinary introduction to the field that incorporates theory and research methodology. Other courses might include the sociology of gender, women in literature, and women's history.

Women's-studies scholars say their subject has been doing for the past 20 years what many educational-reform reports are now recommending. "Women's studies can answer some of the questions we have been seeking for revitalizing our educational system and increasing the quality of it," Ms. Musil says.